From Saharan guitarist Mdou Moctar, a desert storm of psychedelic rock
He plays his own brand of desert blues, traditional Tuareg drones and rhythms blown by western-style hard rock guitar improvisations. It’s psychedelic music in the best sense of the word – it’s mind-blowing – although the phrase means little to the guitarist.
“I like to produce sounds that have strong vibrations, that are a little angry,” says Moctar, speaking on the phone in French, with the help of a translator. He and his band are touring the United States until October, performing on Saturday at the Gateway City Arts in Holyoke and Sunday at the Sinclair in Cambridge.
The songs from Moctar’s new album “Afrique Victime” (Matador), the sequel to 2019’s breakthrough “Ilana: The Creator”, are pulsing with intensity, without a doubt. But the anger that Moctar attributes to the perpetual injustices suffered by his people, and the people of the African continent in general, also translates into transcendence.
“It’s something I want to convey when I talk about revolution in my music,” he says. “I want to make sure that even if you don’t understand the lyrics, you understand that something is happening here through the sound. I want the music to tell you that.
“If we kept silent, they decimate us,” he sings in French and Tamasheq, one of the Tuareg languages, on the title track of the album. It’s a lamentation, but the seven-minute song unfolds to an ever-increasing tempo and otherworldly riffs from Moctar’s Stratocaster.
At 35, Moctar wears the traditional veil of Tuareg men. His bandmates are younger: rhythm guitarist Ahmoudou Madassane, drummer Souleymane Ibrahim and bassist Mikey Coltun, a musical prodigy from the suburbs of Washington, DC, who has fitted in perfectly with Moctar’s distinctive style.
The inclusion of Coltun in the band is part of Moctar’s determination to fight divisions of all kinds with his music. He is fiercely opposed to racism, sexism, war.
“I firmly believe that it doesn’t matter which country you come from. We are all humans, ”he says. “What’s important is to love the music, to love what you do, and for sure Mikey has all of those qualities.”
In his youth, Moctar was in love with the music of Abdallah Oumbadougou, a politically motivated desert blues guitarist and contemporary with Tinariwen, the longtime Tuareg group that helped bring Sahara music to the American public. Oumbadougou died last year, not quite 60; two of the songs from “Afrique Victime” pay homage to him.
Moctar first learned to play a homemade instrument with bicycle brake cables, before getting his hands on real guitars. After he started recording for the Sahel Sounds label in Portland, Oregon, he asked founder Christopher Kirkley how he could go about getting an electric Fender. Left-handed, he hadn’t realized until then that manufacturers made guitars for left-handed people.
“I said ‘No way!’ », Remembers Moctar. “I didn’t even think it existed.”
Kirkley, who started his label by making field recordings, was in Mauritius at the time. He found a used left-handed Stratocaster and shipped it to Moctar’s home in Niger.
“I can say the guitar has really traveled,” says Moctar. “He crossed the whole continent to join me.
Today he is constantly experimenting with effects pedals, incorporating a lot of delay and distortion into his sound. Because Moctar’s story leads him to overcome his family’s early objection to his pursuit of electric music, Kirkley suggested that Prince’s “Purple Rain” be remade. Apparently the first feature film made in the Tuareg language, “Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai” (2015) translates to “Rain the color of blue with a little red in it”. (There is no Tuareg word for “purple”.)
Stories about Moctar often mention how he came to admire the late Eddie Van Halen’s technique while watching videos. And he’s often compared to Jimi Hendrix.
He is polite about these references, but he also has confidence in himself.
“It’s true that over time I discovered a lot of western artists,” he says. “I love what Hendrix does and I support his legend and his memory. The same goes for Eddie Van Halen – I love his guitar tapping style.
“But that does not prevent me from saying that I am not those people,” he continues. “I never want to copy someone. I want to continue to be myself, to develop my own personal style. This is who I am.
During rehearsals for the current tour in New York recently, Moctar and his band tried to turn down the volume so as not to disturb the neighbors.
“But sometimes we forget and play like we’re at home,” he says. He didn’t need to worry. One morning, they woke up to find a note stuck on the door. This is the best review he has received.
“Thank you very much for the music,” one could read. “It took away my stress.”
At Gateway City Arts, 92 Race St., Holyoke, September 11 at 8 p.m. $ 17 $ 20. www.gatewaycityarts.com
At Sinclair, 52 Church Street, Cambridge, September 12 at 8 p.m. $ 22 – $ 25. www.sinclaircambridge.com
James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.